The First Years’ Guide to Graduate School Rotations

Credit: imjaki from Pixabay

To a first year graduate student, deciding what labs to rotate in may seem like a daunting task. When I joined the Penn State College of Medicine graduate program, I was faced with an overwhelming number of options and found it difficult to narrow down my top three lab choices. I made countless pro and con lists hoping they would help me determine which labs I would be well-suited for. My strategy for finding a lab included talking to older graduate students and advisors, asking for advice about the lab dynamics, potential mentors, and most importantly, what qualities are most important in a mentor. Now that I have successfully started my first lab rotation, I wanted to share the advice I acquired from this experience.

1. Know what you want (at least a little bit)

To thrive in graduate school, you want an environment where you work well. This environment looks different for every individual. Some people might want more independence so a principal investigator (PI) who is not always present in the lab might complement their work style best. Others might want a lot of guidance, so a PI who is very hands-on or is consistently present in lab could work well with them. Personally, I needed something in between: a PI who is both present and who will give me the freedom to pursue my own interests. I also wanted a PI that I can easily talk to about my successes and my problems. During my undergraduate years, I learned that I need a PI that I can be comfortable with. I needed to know that however badly I mess up, they will be there to help me troubleshoot and guide me when needed. Knowing what you want and what works best for you is a great start.

2. It’s ok if you don’t know what you want or need

I know I just said that you need to know what you want. It is good to know what you want but some people have never worked in a lab and have no idea what kind of mentorship style works best for them. This is one of the reasons why the program requires completion of lab rotations. Try to find labs based on research that sounds interesting or appealing to you. https://pennstate.pure.elsevier.com/ is a great resource for identifying potential PIs. Talk to people around you and people who currently work in the labs that you are interested in. They can give you a lot of insight on lab dynamics and the mentorship style of the PI. If you hear things that sound appealing to you, try it out. If you are 100% sure that you will hate a specific lab for the research, mentorship style, or lab dynamic, then don’t waste your time rotating in that lab. Don’t try to convince yourself that you will like something that you know you will hate. However, if you are unsure about a lab, it may be best to give it a try to see if it works for you. It is not atypical for some students to complete a 4th or a 5th rotation if needed.

3. Communicate with the PI

You looked at all the options and found a potential rotation lab! Great job! Now you need to communicate your interest to the PI. This is one of the most stressful moments when setting up a rotation, especially if you don’t know the PI. What do you say in your email? The most important thing is to be honest and professionally communicate your interest. If they don’t know you, introduce yourself by telling them who you are, what your background is, and attach your CV. Tell them what area of their research you are specifically interested in. Ask them if they are available for a meeting and provide a general time that works for you. Tell them why you are interested in the lab and ask to meet with them.

4. Remember that PIs are busy and might not reply right away

You’ve sent the email and haven’t gotten a reply. Now what? Reach out again the following week. PIs are busy but will generally respond to students. Don’t be afraid to stop by their office, talk to them in class, or catch them in the hallways on the way to get coffee from Au Bon Pain. Tell them you are interested in their work and would like to meet.

5. You have a meeting set up. Time to prepare!

Congratulations! The meeting time is set. It might be tomorrow, or it might be next week. Whenever it is, make sure you are prepared. Read their publications and familiarize yourself with potential projects you may be working on. Write down some questions and ask them about techniques you aren’t experienced in. Be prepared to know what skills and value you will bring to their lab. Think of this as a mini-interview.

6. Things to talk about during the meeting

Make sure the PI’s expectations of the rotation are clearly communicated. Do you want to do an educational rotation where you learn a technique, or will this be a potential dissertation lab for you? Talk to them about things you would like to learn and show them your interest. Be engaged in the conversation and take initiative on the project you are working on. You might also meet the people in the lab. Talk to them and make sure to pay attention to any red flags. Get the students’ perspectives about the lab. They know everything there is to know about the lab dynamic.

7. Do your rotation and have fun! If you like it and the PI can take you on as a student, then congratulations! You have found your lab home!

By Mariam Melkumyan

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